You’ve come to a turning point in your career and your future is uncertain. You may know it’s time for a change but are not sure how to go about it, or even what you really want. You have a lingering feeling that whatever you’re doing right now just isn’t working, but in the midst of uncertainty, finding direction can be difficult.
Steve Jobs famously said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” To move forward and create the career you want, you must look back at the way you’ve come. To ignore what has come before is to ignore significant pieces of who you are. Connecting the dots means evaluating your experiences and identifying patterns, key threads and themes that can point you in the direction of your greatest success.
This can seem counterintuitive, especially when the common advice of “following your passion” suggests that there is one perfect job out there for you, and it’s everything you’ve ever dreamed of—you just have to find it. Instead of chasing an elusive concept, however, take time to identify your strengths, understand your unique contributions and discover where you thrive. Getting to know yourself, or as author, Elizabeth Gilbert puts it, following “your curiosity,” is a critical step to setting clear and achievable goals for your future career. Here are some key questions to ask yourself to identify your career goals.
When was the last time you felt a deep sense of accomplishment?
It doesn’t have to be work-related. Thinking outside of the professional world can be a strong indicator of areas where you experience fulfillment. It could be when you organized a meet up for other local soccer enthusiasts and fifty people showed up. Perhaps it was that sense of invigoration when you mastered a complex piece of software. Looking even further back, were some of your happiest times when you participated on the debate team in high-school? Experts say that activities in which you excel with relative ease are generally very good indications of where your greatest strengths and abilities lie. Excelling in a debate forum might have indicated your early love of public speaking and critical analysis, just as decoding software reveals you’re a problem solver at your core. Take note of these underlying themes to identify what passions are worth pursuing.
In what situations have you not thrived?
Identify specific times when you’ve felt most unfulfilled and ask why? A difficult relationship with a co-worker may have been the greatest obstacle in your last job, not necessarily the task. Did you dread working in an environment that wasn’t team focused? This indicates your best work may come from when you’re engaging and brainstorming with others. Were you adept at talent development but got pigeonholed early on and never found the time to explore other skills you were really interested in? Identifying these instances can be crucial to distinguishing between negative environmental factors and the types of job you thrive in.
When did you take the most risks?
It is easy to settle in a career and embrace a certain level of comfort, doing the same job over and over because it’s safe. Change the narrative and think back to a time when you were your most confident and willing to take risks. This can reveal a core strength. When you started a non-profit organization from your living-room, you were fearless. When you worked with a dysfunctional team and saw them achieve greater cohesion, you had no doubt in your abilities. Ask yourself what made you so confident and what gave you the security to take smart risks?
What do you care about?
Taking inventory of your life often reveals what is important to you. Decisions you have made can mirror back to you what you care about and what values or principles have driven you thus far. Now, decide what matters to you moving forward and write it out. Do you value working at home with your family, having a great relationship with your coworkers or being able to bring your dog to the office? It can also be as simple as deciding to pursue a healthier work/life balance. Determining and prioritizing your values will help you make the right decisions for your future.
What do others say?
We all need outside perspective to assist with feedback and provide us with new opportunities. Consider getting help from a career coach who will ask you questions and offer insight that you may never have considered. They can also provide a sounding board and reflect back what you might have a hard time seeing. Looking back over your entire career with an objective party can illuminate for you common “threads,” both positive or negative. They can help you decide what is valuable to continue pursuing and what you need to let go. If a coach is not an option, contact trusted former colleagues and life-long friends and ask them where they have seen you the most energized and alive.
Becoming curious about your past is the first step to deciding the direction you want to go and managing your career, not the other way around.